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Handmaids as Technology and the Failure of The Republic of Gilead

During our class discussions of The Handmaid’s Tale, we focused mainly on the role of gender in The Republic of Gilead, rather than the role of technology.  While there were several blog posts about technology in the novel, like clothing and language, and we structured several classes around the technology of representation, it wasn’t until the third series of web papers that anyone explicitly analyzed the role of technology, at least in terms of our broad definition of technology.  The definition of technology I recorded and used in my analysis says ‘technology is anything invented, utilized, or refined by people; anything not naturally occurring or something used in an inventive way to achieve a goal (i.e. a rock can be technology if someone uses it to grind corn).’  Using this definition, my third paper explored evidence that the Gileadean Handmaids are mechanical dolls, robotic procreation tools, essentially, technology.

As is clearly evident in the novel’s Historical Notes, The Republic of Gilead eventually collapsed.  What the Historical Notes do not explain is why this society failed; this, then, becomes the interesting question: Why did The Republic of Gilead crumble? Was it defeated by its political and/or military enemies? Was it unable to obtain its goal of raising birthrates to population replacement levels? Or did the society fracture from within?  Despite The Republic’s constant scapegoating of traditional technology and anti-technology stance, I believe it was The Republic’s accidental attempt to make the Handmaids mechanical robots that eventually led to its downfall.  To explore this theory, I began by examining pre-Gileadean society in order to understand the societal pressures and trends that led to the creation of The Republic of Gilead.

We know from a brief explanation in The Historical Notes that the pre-Gileadean society experienced “plummeting Caucasian birthrates, a phenomenon not only observable in Gilead but in most northern Caucasian societies of the time” (304).  Offred’s reconstruction of her time at the Red Center offers even more detail of this phenomenon: “Pulled down in front of the blackboard, where once there would have been a map, is a graph, showing the birthrate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down” (113).  Though Aunt Lydia maintains that “there was no one cause” (113), the numerous causes mentioned throughout the novel all clearly fall under one heading: technology (where we define technology in the traditional sense).  There were the technologies women used as birth control, the societal technologies, like power plants, that polluted the environment, and the technologies of sex, like Feels on Wheels and Bun-Dle Buggies, that led to men “turning off on marriage” (210).  Again, Offred’s reconstruction from the Red Center nicely summarizes the traditional technologies blamed for pre-Gileadean society’s problems: “Women took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers.  Not to mention the exploding atomic power plants, along the San Andreas fault, nobody’s fault, during the earthquakes, and the mutant strain of syphilis no mold could touch.  Some did it to themselves, had themselves tied shut with catgut or scarred with chemicals.” (112)

Based on what they observed, those who originally imagined Gileadean society “thought [they] could do better” (211).  In addition to the evils of technology, they also used evidence of malcontent to garner support for their conception of utopia.  The Commander explains some of this thinking during two conversations with Offred.  First he discusses the problems men were complaining of in pre-Gileadean society: “I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy.  Anyone could just buy it.  There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for,  We have the stats from that time.  You know what they were complaining about the most?  Inability to feel.  Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage.” (210) And secondly, he delves into The Republic’s perception of women’s lives before The Republic’s inception: “[Women] were always complaining. Problems this, problems that.  Remember the ad in the Personal columns, Bright attractive woman, thirty-five… This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out.  And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare.  Or else he’d stay around and beat them up.  Of if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks.  Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers.  No wonder they were giving up on the whole business.  This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace.  With full support and encouragement.” (219-220) Here we see that those who originally imagined Gileadean society believed there was much to be improved upon and that they believed traditional technology to be the main cause of pre-Gileadean society’s problems.

Despite their anti-technology stance, the Gileadean leaders managed to make good use of technology in order to take control of society and control the Handmaids.  Prompted by a rush of adrenaline, Offred recounts how the transition occurred: “…everything went on the Compubank. … If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult. … It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency.  They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time… that was when they suspended the Constitution.  They said it would be temporary. … Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said.  The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses.  Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful.  They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them.” (173-174)  So much technology (the Compubank, machine guns, roadblocks, and Identipasses) was used to control the citizens of Gilead that it is hard to imagine The Republic being as against technology as they claimed to be, but this is one of many paradoxes in The Handmaid’s Tale.  After The Republic’s inception, we still see that they are using technology to control their citizens.  There are searchlights at night, tattoos to permanently label an important national resource, and media control: “Serena clicks the channel changer. Waves, colored zigzags, a garble of sound: it’s the Montreal satellite station, being blocked … They only show us victories, never defeats. Who wants bad news? …several blank channels, then the news. … Such as it is: who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked.” (82)

Let’s go back to The Republic’s anti-technology stance and how, at the Red Center, they attempted to condition the Handmaids to believe that technology is evil.  The Aunts at the Center preach endlessly about the evils of technology, especially modern birth control methods and abortion.  We first become aware of The Republic’s position on abortion when Ofglen and Offred visit the Wall: “Each [man] has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal” (32).  In addition to preaching that modern birth control methods are an affront to God, the Aunts also teach the Handmaids about the horrors of technology formerly used in childbirth: “It used to be different, [the doctors] used to be in charge. A shame it was, said Aunt Lydia.  Shameful.  What she’d just showed us was a film, made in an olden-days hospital: a pregnant woman, wired up to a machine, electrodes coming out of her every which way so that she looked like a broken robot, an intravenous drip feeding into arm.  Some man with a searchlight looking up between her legs where she’s been shaved, a mere beardless girl, a trayful of bright sterilized knives, everyone with masks on.  A cooperative patient.  Once they drugged women, induced labor, cut them open, sewed them up.  No more.  No anesthetics, even.  Aunt Elizabeth said it was better for the baby, but also: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” (114) These images clearly demonstrate The Republic’s stance against traditional technology and their desire to brainwash the Handmaids into believing that technology caused all of their previous problems.

Ironically, it turns out that if The Republic of Gilead had functioned as originally intended, the Handmaids themselves would have actually become technology, mere tools in the process of procreation.  The second chapter of the novel offers the first reference to a Handmaid being technological, when Offred comments on her own mechanical quality: “They used to have dolls, for little girls, that would talk if you pulled a string at the back; I thought I was sounding like that, voice of a monotone, voice of a doll” (16).  Here, Offred hears herself resembling technology because she is acting out a scripted role; she is performing a public self separate from her natural identity.  In the fourth chapter, Offred similarly describes her shopping partner, Ofglen, as mechanical, not in sounds, but in action: “Without a word she swivels, as if she’s voice-activated, as if she’s on little oiled wheels, as if she’s on top of a music box” (43).  Ofglen appears physically doll-like, while Offred heard herself sounding emotionally doll-like.

The technological qualities of the Handmaids go far beyond sound and appearance, however.  On a deeper level, they have been utilized in an inventive way in order to achieve a goal.  They are, of course, used to achieve the goal of procreation, but even more complex is the way in which they re-create themselves as objects.  Offred discusses this process while contemplating the act of waiting: “I wait. I compose myself.  My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech.  What I must present is a made thing, not something born” (66).  This key quotation evokes not only the idea of humans inventing new roles for others, but of humans reinventing themselves.  Offred poignantly compares her public self to a speech.  She composes herself to be the appropriate embodiment of womanhood in The Republic of Gilead, a tool for procreation.  The passage also explicitly identifies one key difference between the natural and the technological; Offred is “a made thing, not something born” (66).  In the conventional hierarchy of person, place, or thing, she has clearly been demoted from person to thing.

We can see, however, that handmaids are a very valuable things.  In The Republic of Gilead, women with viable ovaries are considered an economic commodity, like the workers of Metropolis, they are viewed as a resource, rather than people.  “Women were not protected then” (24), Offred tells us in the second chapter, foreshadowing her discussion of the tattoo on her ankle in the fourth: “I cannot avoid seeing, now, the small tattoo on my ankle.  Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse.  It’s supposed to guarantee that I will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape.  I am too important, too scarce, for that.  I am a national resource” (65).  Offred has indeed become a valuable thing used as a key technology in the process of producing children.

While the image of a society in which everyone is a cog in a machine lingers, the latter half of the novel has less evidence of the Handmaids as technology.  We consistently see the world through Offred’s eyes, but the tone of the novel becomes increasingly subjective as Offred takes more risks and becomes more daring.  The Gileadean ideal of fertile women as tools for procreation isn’t something women like Offred are willing to embody.  Though the citizens of The Republic do not have free will, as we arguably do, they are still human and this essential fact is key in the disintegration of The Republic of Gilead because those who designed The Republic overlooked one fundamental aspect of humanity: desire.  Desire, as Judith Halberstam says, “provides the random element necessary to a technology’s definition as intelligent.”  Desire, then, is what separates a robot from an animal, a cyborg from a human.  This oversight by The Republic leads to its downfall because the citizens of Gilead are not willing, or even completely able, to ignore their desires and become robots.

We see much evidence throughout the novel of the human desires that the Handmaid’s have.  For example, Offred “hunger[s] to commit the act of touch” (11) and wants to rebel: “I know without being told that what he’s proposing is risky, for him but especially for me; but I want to go anyway.  I want anything that breaks the monotony, subverts the perceived respectable order of things” (231).  “Having felt the relief of even that much speaking, I want more” (185), Offred admits while sitting in the Commander’s office after learning about the Mayday movement from Ofglen earlier in the day.  Offred’s use of the collective ‘we’ and her accounts from her time at the Red Center indicate that she is not the only Handmaid to feel these un-robotic desires.  Here, her discussion of the buttering routine the Handmaids do clearly demonstrates a collective yearning for a better future: “As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire” (96-97).

Not only do the Handmaids reject their robotic roles and give in to their desires, but other members of Gileadean society do as well.  Offred’s relationship with Nick, the Commander’s chauffer and resident Guardian, allows us to see his desire: “He too is illegal, here, with me, he can’t give me away. Nor I him; for the moment we’re mirrors. He puts his hand on my arm, pulls me against him, his mouth on mine, what else comes from such denial? Without a word. Both of us shaking, how I’d like to. …“I was coming to find you,” he says, breathes, almost into my ear. I want to reach up, taste his skin, he makes me hungry.  His fingers move, feeling my arm under the nightgown sleeve, as if his hand won’t listen to reason.” (98-99) Later in the novel, he clearly takes a huge risk by engaging in an illicit sexual relationship with Offred, demonstrating a strong desire contrary to the role assigned to him by The Republic.  Offred’s reconstruction also gives us insight into the Commander’s world.  Because he feels guilty about his previous Handmaid’s suicide, the Commander hopes he can make Offred’s “life [] bearable for [her]” (187) while she, in turn, uses his desire to satisfy her own desire: “I have something on him now.  What I have on him is the possibility of my own death.  What I have on him is his guilt.  At last. “What would you like?” he says… “I would like…” I say. “I would like to know”” (188).  Finally, we also see Serena’s desires, though her goals are in line with The Republic’s, she wants to achieve them so badly she is willing to use unsanctioned methods: ““Maybe you should try it another way, … I was thinking of Nick,” she says … This idea hangs between us, almost visible, almost palpable: heavy, formless, dark; a collusion of a sort, betrayal of a sort. She does want that baby” (205).

It is precisely these desires, and especially the desires the Handmaids have, which will ultimately lead to the failure of The Republic of Gilead, but why do the citizens of Gilead carry on with their attempts to improve their lives?  What is it that drives them to continuously risk their safety?  Perhaps this can be examined through the psychology experiment Offred recalls during her afternoon nap: “…the one on pigeons, trained to peck a button that made a grain of corn appear.  Three groups of them: the first got one grain per peck, the second one grain every other peck, the third was random.  When the man in charge cut off the grain, the first group gave up quite soon, the second group a little later.  The third group never gave up.  They’d peck themselves to death, rather than quit.” (70) In our lives, we do not regularly get what we want the way the first and second groups of pigeons did; we can put in our best effort and work hard, but ultimately, our rewards are random, just like the third group of pigeons.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, the citizens of Gilead still remember the rewards they received before “the man in charge” cut them off (70); rewards like love, friendship, independence, freedom, happiness, etc.  As Aunt Lydia tells the first generation of Handmaids:
“You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you.  We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. … For the ones who come after you, it will be easier.  They will accept their duties with willing hearts.  She did not say: Because they will have no memories, of any other way.  She said: Because they won’t want things they can’t have.” (117)  Since they are able to recall being rewarded, though randomly, the first generation of Gileadean citizens, especially the Handmaids, will not soon give up on their attempts to improve their lives and their hope for a better future.

Since we cannot know if The Republic of Gilead was defeated by its enemies or if they failed to raise birthrates, it is impossible to say that The Republic’s oversight of the power of human desires led directly to its downfall, there is some evidence to support that it played a key role.  The Historical Notes make a small reference to “Gileadean Civil Wars” (300) and if The Republic were defeated by its enemies, they likely would not have had to purge information about their leaders as they apparently did.  As there is little evidence to suggest that The Republic was defeated by exterior forces, it stands to reason that internal pressures, specifically The Republic’s flawed image of utopia, caused it eventual demise.